It’s drought resistant, easy to harvest and cook, and easier to spell than freekeh andquinoa. Meet teff, the diminutive ancient grain that’s been feeding Ethiopia for 5,000 years—and might soon be coming to a store near you.
Before the first teff was sown on U.S. soil, it was already known for helping to drag Ethiopia out of the 1983 famine, which ravaged the war-torn nation for three years.
Subsistence farming became a necessity for rural families in the wake of the crisis, which would kill an estimated 400,000 people. Teff’s high nutrient density—it contains 26 grams of protein per cup—and high yields made it a staple crop during scarce times.
“There was nothing to eat. There was not any food even to see,” one farmer recalls in this Perennial Plate video, which shows a family harvesting teff, separating the tiny grain from the dry chaff. “To prevent it from happening again, we must work hard and take care.”
Some American farmers are taking note of the ancient grain’s resilience and believe it could be a useful tool in mitigating the effects of drought on livestock.
At New Mexico State University’s Agriculture Experiment Station, cows and horses are fed a rotating diet of alfalfa and teff, cutting the facility’s water usage by 25 percent, according to a press release from the school.
It is also being grown as a consumer crop by The Teff Company in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. The long summers, intense heat spells, and basaltic soil mimic the climate and geology of East Africa, says owner and teff evangelist Wayne Carlson.
The Ethiopian government prohibits the export of any raw teff product, so the demand for its domestic cultivation is on the rise. That means that any teff boom wouldn’t come with the attendant problems of quinoa’s popularity, as it wouldn’t be shipped from a poor nation half a world away.